The Question of Kurdistan
At the KDP's Ministry of Economics and Administration I met the meek young Bashdar Habib, general director of planning and follow-up. His office has the feel of a tacky hotel suite--plastic flowers, gray-and-pink splatter-patterned wallpaper. There are no books or reports anywhere. He sits at his desk reading the KDP newspaper. He has been here for three months but cannot give me even the most basic or general numbers about the Kurdish economy because no one has given them to him. He has a bachelor's degree in finance and no experience in economic planning.
He is apologetic and takes me to meet the director of finance, the older, more commanding but still quite amateur Rasheed Hassn. In that office the story is the same: Little is happening, no numbers are available. Then there is a business interruption. A clerk has a bill for several hundred thousand dollars from a contractor, and it seems that the firm in question may have already been paid but maybe not. No one is sure. Meanwhile, Barzani's associates are investing huge sums in stadiums, empty shopping malls and luxury housing developments with capital from who knows where. These bizarre, mostly empty trophy projects surround Kurdistan's two headquarter cities, Erbil and Sulaimaniya.
But this corrupt order--in which clan, party, state and commerce all merge and overlap--is not without benefits for the average Kurd. Vying for the loyalty of common people, the two parties are engaged in a patronage-based cold war in which jobs, houses, pensions, generators, new schools and health clinics are used to win votes, influence and obedience. As one farmer explained it: "Sometimes the parties are judged by how they serve the people."
In the PUK-controlled village of Greda Boor, not far from the area where KDP influence starts, Akran Anwar Karem and his family are winnowing the chaff from seed onion. "We'll plant these again later," he says. Given that Saddam leveled this village during the Anfal campaign of the late 1980s, conditions could be worse. He points out a new school and clinic but complains that the promised electrical lines are a year late. He'd like some fertilizer as well.
If the petroleum-funded patronage system can serve a weird redistributive function, it also has a punitive side.
"We have mud houses that we build ourselves," says Nazwad Muhiadin, who farms cucumbers and tomatoes in a flat, hot KDP-controlled village north of Kirkuk called Sheran. "The KDP built those brick houses for its supporters. When we went to the other party to get a big generator, the KDP threatened to take it from us, so we don't have one."
The party patronage system has also served to stall the official Kurdish agenda of neoliberalism--that is to say, the US occupation's program of mass privatization. Despite the free-market bromides mouthed by party hacks, they continue doing things the old-fashioned way. Many of the nonpetroleum sectors of the economy--cigarettes, cement, utilities and carpets--are still state-held. Education and healthcare are free. The government employs 35 percent of the workforce, and 60 percent of the population receives some sort of pension or government assistance. The land reform of the early 1960s has not been rolled back. All of this bolsters the power of the parties. It also means that the region lacks the truly grinding poverty marked by dump scavenging, begging and mass brigandage that plagues much of the global South.
"They declare they are for privatization, but they don't do anything," says a very disappointed Dr. Mihamad Riouf Saeed at Mostansary University in Sulaimaniya. "They don't privatize anything. We have no plan. There are no economic experts in government. So we eat and the administration goes on."